JAFFNA: Minority Tamils voted in large numbers yesterday in a landmark election they hope will give them a chance at self-rule in Sri Lanka’s north after decades of ethnic conflict that claimed over 100,000 lives.
Balloting closed on time after nine hours, but the main opposition Tamil National Alliance, which is expected to win the semi-autonomous Northern Provincial council election, said the military tried to intimidate and discourage voters.
Despite reports of minor “incidents”, about 60 percent of the 426,000 electorate in Jaffna district voted, deputy elections commissioner S Achchuthan said.
The government information department in a statement said voters in the northern province “contributed towards participatory democracy with an overall 68 percent turnout at council election”.
Deputy elections commissioner Achchuthan said they took several measures to ensure people could vote freely and those steps appeared to have worked.
“A turnout of over 60 percent is very, very good for Jaffna,” he said.
Achchuthan added that even national elections had recorded much lower turnouts in the northern province and yesterday’s figures underscored the enthusiasm of voters.
Results are expected by today.
The vote in the former rebel stronghold has been promoted by the UN Human Rights Council as a step towards ethnic reconciliation after decades of fighting that ended when troops crushed Tamil separatists in 2009.
The poll was held amid international pressure on the Sinhalese-dominated national government to share power with Tamils who are a national minority, but are in the majority in the battle-scarred north.
Yesterday’s poll was also the first local election to be internationally monitored. Dozens of observers from South Asian nations and the Commonwealth were involved along with hundreds of private monitors.
The Northern Provincial Council was set up in 1987 but elections were never held and its functioning was controlled directly by the Sri Lankan president.
Retired Supreme Court judge Kanagasabapathy Wigneswaran is expected to be the region’s first elected chief minister in a council that will have limited powers over the local administration.
Some 906 candidates contested 36 seats up for grabs in the Northern Council. Two more seats are earmarked for the party with the most votes under a system of proportional representation.
There were elections for two other provincial councils in the largely Sinhalese North West and Central regions yesterday with President Rajapaksa’s party expected to win both.